Thursday, April 30, 2009

Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson

I can’t remember where, but ages ago I read about Rachel Carson’s famous book on the toxic spoiling of the environment, Silent Spring. For some reason, somewhere in the back of my mind, I presumed the book would probably be a little dated. Alas, when I saw a modern Penguin edition sitting on the library shelf I thought I would give the book a go.

The afterward by Carson biographer Linda Lear talks about how the book was revolutionary, and pretty much started the environmental movement. It was published in the New Yorker in three consecutive editions, then came out in book form, and went on to be a big seller.

Unfortunately for Ms. Carson, she died only some 16 months later from cancer of the breast. This is ironic, to say the least, as so much of the book is concerned with how the masses of insecticides that are sprayed on the environment cause cancer.

The book has an eerily beautiful, poetic title, and one of the chief charm’s of the book is how it is written in a gentle, sensitive and accessible style. Carson uses the science to build up a picture of a delicately balanced eco-system that is being bludgeoned by man with toxins. Man, in his delusions, thinks that he can make nature do all his bidding without thinking about the ramifications of his actions.

But this is no fanciful poetic, utopian vision of nature. Carson marshals a lot of material to back up her arguments, and a lot of it you would think irrefutable. Some of her examples are downright scary. (Actually, I recall reading somewhere that people who work in agriculture have very high cancer rates.)

I think where the controversy about the subject of environmentalism arises is over who knows best about nature. Carson ends her book with an alternative route to that of poisonous herbicides and insecticides. She encourages manipulating nature by sending out neutered species to mate, plus other ‘natural’ solutions.

Hence the book opens with a warning about manipulating nature, warning that nature will come back to bite us on the bum. Yet Carson advocates another type of manipulation. Again, her critique argues that we don’t know what the long-term effects on the environment are of using so many toxins. But surely her idea of ‘natural’ solutions is just another fix, for which we don’t know what the long-term ramifications would be.

Well, what do I know? It just seems to me that we are always looking for ‘natural’ solutions, pretending to be in harmony with nature, but what we are really doing is trying to control nature.

I’m signed up to the environmental movement, and agree broadly with what Carson writes about here. We should tread very carefully when it comes to the environment. Hopefully, nature will then treat us more kindly.

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